Madison County Historical Society

Jails Couldn't Hold Everyone

Early Years Had Notable Escapes in Madison County

 
 

The first record of people being held in a "jail" in Madison County is connected with the well-known 1824 Fall Creek Massacre of Indians.  The murders occurred in March, but the accused were not brought to trial until the fall session of the circuit court began in Pendleton, the county seat, on October 7.

For six months, four heavily-manacled prisoners were held in a primitive square-shaped log stockade located on the south side of Fall Creek close to the falls.  A guard was posted day and night around the jail although it turned out to be less than effective.

Within the stockade was a cubicle with only a dirt floor described as a dank log hut with some straw for comfort.  No doubt the crude structure was specially erected to house these prisoners as no record exists of any previous incarcerations in the county, which was organized in 1823.

One of the four prisoners managed to escape for a short time by freeing himself from his manacles and, with a boost to the stop of the stockade from a fellow prisoner, get away.  No records exist as to whether this jail was used after the trials of the four concluded, in which they were convicted of murder and three were later hanged. 



This is an artist's rendering of the Madison County Courthouse built in 1839.  It was located on what is now the Madison County Government Cent in downtown Anderson, Indiana.

 
 

County Government Moves to Andersontown

The next record of the county jail appears with the move of the county government seat from Pendleton to Andersontown, which the Indiana Legislature approved on January 26, 1827.  With the move, a new courthouse was erected in 1831 at a cost of $200.  It was located on the northeast corner of today's Eighth and Main Streets.  On July 6, 1829, the Commissioner's court ordered the construction of a jail.  Prior to this order, county prisoners were kept in the jails of adjoining counties.  A record exists dated March, 18830, showing the Henry County jailer was allowed $4.81 for caring for four Madison County prisoners.

The county's second jail was located on the west side of the public square about where the west entrance of the present Madison County Government Center is located.  It was a hewed-log structure, 16 feet square, a story and a half high.  In May, 1831, the grand jury reported "that they have examined the county jail, and find it in good repair, and fit for reception of prisoners."  The entrance was by a flight of stairs on the outside to the upper story.  The only entrance to the lower story was through a trap-door in the ceiling of the lower room, which could be raised from above only.  Entrance to the lower level was gained by means of a ladder.  Once prisoners were safely confined, the ladder was withdrawn and the trap-door secured.  This arrangement worked for the next six years.  In September, 1837, the jail was ordered removed since it was no longer secure and was unusable.

At the same time, the county agent sold the old courthouse and lot.  A new courthouse was erected and opened in October, 1839, on the site of the current Madison County Government Center.  Because the old log jail was so insecure and unfit for use, the cupola or belfry of the new courthouse was improvised into a prison for keeping criminals, there being but one way of access to the cupola, and that was by the stairway leading from the hall of the courthouse.

In the summer of 1841, William Harris, a noted criminal, was arrested on the charge of passing counterfeit money and convicted by a local jury.  He was confined in the courthouse cupola but not for long.  About midnight of August 12, Harris began his planned escape.  Around 10 p.m. and lasting until daylight, great torrents of rain fell in Andersontown.  The rain was incessant and was accompanied by vivid flashes of lightning and terrific thunder.  Harris's plan was to go through the shutter of the cupola to the lightning rod.  Using the rod, he let himself down to the roof of the building and then continued his hold on the rod to descend to the ground, a total distance of about 45 feet.

Oddly, his wife was with him in the cupola when he decided to attempt his escape.  He bade farewell to her and started out amid the drenching rain and blinding flashes of lightning to the rod.  He could hear, as he afterward stated, the lightning skip along the rod.  He seized the rod and proceeded to descend hand over hand and soon reached the roof.  Knowing any time the guard in the hall way might hear his movements caused his heart to flutter but did not stop him.  Seizing the rod once more he crawled cautiously down the roof, over the eave and stepped off the roof onto the window sill on the west side of the hall.  A glace at the other end of the hall, as the lightning illuminated it, satisfied him that the guards were asleep.  After another 16 feet, he reached the ground and made a speedy departure.

While in jail he had been manacled with handcuffs and chains upon his ankles.  It was said his wife aided his escape by bringing a knife to his cell which was used in sawing the chains between his hands and feet.  And, she furnished him with shawl to wrap his legs for protection from the rod as he made his descent to the ground.

Harris never returned to Madison County.  In 1863, some local Union soldiers were on duty in Cynthiana, Kentucky.  One of them became acquainted with an old, gray-haired man, stoop-shouldered and slow of conversation.  Upon learning the soldier was from Madison County, the old man revealed he was William Harris.

After the escape and until June, 1842, all prisoners that were to be confined any length of time, had to be taken to Indianapolis for safekeeping.  While in Andersontown, awaiting trial, they were securely ironed and guarded, which was a heavy expense for the county.

By Stephen T. Jackson, Madison County Historian

  Mr. Jackson is exploring the history of the county jails in a two-part series.  His next installment will appear June 4 in which he details a more brazen escape from one of our county jails.

 

Madison County Historical Society|15 West 11th Street, P. O. Box 696, Anderson, Indiana 46015-0696|(765)683-0052|madisonchs@sbcglobal.net